“Carbon Cowboys”: new documentary series shows farmers’ lives turned around by working with nature
Shot over six years in rural communities in the US, Canada and the UK, the series tracks farmers who were going bankrupt following conventional ways of farming, using chemicals. Many of them were going to lose family farms, some held since the 1800s. Out of desperation, they turned to nature and discovered a new source of profit and joy: regenerative grazing.
Will Harris, a 4th generation farmer from south Georgia, says: “Today I’m very glad that I made the changes that I made because the farm is again profitable, cash flow positive.”
Whilst the consumption of beef as a food source has long been vilified as a terrible environmental and moral consumption choice, Carbon Cowboys shows how agricultural practices can be adapted to benefit both people and planet.
Gabe Brown, a long-on-knowledge, short-on-patience rancher in North Dakota, shares: “It’s extremely low stress, because we are working with nature, instead of against her.”
Made in collaboration with Arizona State University and The World Bank, the films range from 8 to 23 minutes, and were made available online. Some have already won awards, including at the Cleveland International Film Festival.
Peter Byck is well-known for the “Carbon Nation” documentary, which had its theatrical release in 2011 and cemented his reputation as one of the world’s top filmmakers focused on solutions to climate change. “Carbon Nation” won the IVCA Clarion Chairman’s Award in 2011 and the Green Me Global Festival, Berlin, Grand Jury Prize in 2017. Byck’s first documentary, Garbage, won South By Southwest in 1996.
Regenerative grazing involves quickly rotating cattle from pasture to pasture, before they can damage the land – similar to how bison herds moved across The Great Plains. The method, in contrast to conventional grazing, does not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Instead of stripping soils of healthy carbon, soil carbon is restored, making the land more resilient to drought and better able to absorb heavy rain, preventing flooding. It also produces much more food for the cattle, enabling the farmers to produce 2 to 3 times the amount of meat on the same land, with the same rainfall.
Their neighbors, who are stuck in the conventional system, think these ground-breakers are crazy – but the carbon cowboys don’t care. They know they’re saving money with lower operating costs, producing more food, and working less, sometimes much less than before.
Regenerative grazing pioneer Neil Dennis from Saskatchewan, Canada, who passed in 2018, and to whom the film is dedicated: “If I was to start this when I was your age, you know what would have happened? I would have had 15 kids by now, because I spend so much time in the house.”
Since the series was completed, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the meat industry very hard, with large numbers of workers in the processing plants falling sick and impacting supplies to grocers. The price of conventional meat has spiked. Meanwhile the Carbon Cowboys who sell direct to customers, are seeing sales increases of between 3 and 10 times – and many have sold out of stock. Their customers know their food is healthy, more so than conventional meat.
Byck says: “I came into this because I’m on the hunt for solutions to climate change. Many of the farmers I’ve filmed aren’t doing this because of climate change, they’re focusing on their soils’ health for their family’s livelihood. But if the farmers can help solve climate change because it’s profitable – that works for me.”